The Torah provides us with two versions of the story of the spies sent to scout theLandofIsrael. Parashat Shelach-Lecha contains a much more extensive account than in parashat Devarim, where it is revisited. Both versions agree that twelve tribal leaders are sent to explore the land. The spies return to the people in the wilderness after a 40 day journey and bring back ripe fruits. Ten of the 12 scouts report that it is a “a land that flows with milk and honey, but it is also a land of the Anakites or giants. We feel like grasshoppers in their sight.”
Joshua and Caleb disagree with the ten other scouts, urging the people to go up and conquer the land. In panic, the people protest to Moses to let them go back toEgypt. Angered by the report of the spies and by the reaction of the people, God punishes them with forty years of wandering in the desert, a year for each of the days of the spies’ journey. The people are told that the generation liberated fromEgyptwill not enter theLandofIsrael. Only their children, led by Joshua and Caleb, will victoriously enter the land.
Clearly something drastic has happened! The people who had suffered long years of Egyptian slavery are condemned to die there in the dessert. What do the spies either say or do to bring on such severe punishment? As we may imagine with so significant an event, there are a variety of views.
Many commentators including 16th Century Italian scholar Rabbi Obadiah Sforno accuse the spies of misleading the people. The Sforno says that when they mention the giants, they mean to suggest that the climate of the land is so polluted that only the strongest among them will survive. When they claim that they felt like grasshoppers, the spies are deliberately exaggerating the physical size of their enemies. Modern commentator, Rabbi Pinchas Peli says that by observing that it is a land that eats up its people, the spies are conducting a demoralizing campaign deliberately deceiving the people about the land.
Modern commentator Nehama Leibowitz notes that the spies knew their job well. First they sing the praises of the Promised Land, aware that a tale to succeed must have a modicum of truth in it to give an appearance of objectivity. They knew how to pass from an apparently objective report to a subjective expression of opinion. For instance, they tell the people, “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.” Then they say, “But we saw giants there.” It is for the sin of inciting the people to fear about going up to conquer the land, for misleading them with deliberate exaggerations, that the spies and the people for “following” them are punished.
The Ramban, Nachmanides, disagrees with most of the other interpretations. The spies, he contends, do not present any false facts, nor do they exaggerate what they saw. They show the people the fruit of the land, and they tell the truth about it. Their fault, he argues, is in misunderstanding the purpose of their mission and in their manner of reporting about it. They are sent on a reconnaissance mission with the task of bringing back strategic details on how best to conquer the land. Since Moses is preparing for war, their assignment is to return with details about the land and its people, which will guarantee victory. The future of the people depended on the report.
No matter which commentator one wants to latch onto, the bottom line is that the spies reveal their low self-esteem. In saying, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,” they indicate little respect for their capabilities. They see themselves as weaklings, powerless, without strength or imagination to overcome their enemies. Their lack of self-respect breeds self-contempt and they provoked the others to lose faith.
Psychologist Erich Fromm observes that the affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth, and freedom is rooted in one’s capacity to love. We love productively only when we learn to love ourselves. We can only conquer “Promised Lands” when we have regard for our talents and believe in our own creative powers. The sin of the spies grows from their failure of self-love and self-respect. Perhaps that explains their punishment. Unable to appreciate themselves, they are condemned to wander and die in the desert. Only Joshua and Caleb, who refuse to see themselves as “grasshoppers,” are worthy of entering the Promised Land.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham